While the laws governing advertising extend online, the law is notoriously slow in keeping pace with technological and commercial innovation. Ten years ago, spam was regarded as an unpalatable luncheon meat; now spam is an unpalatable side effect of the commercialization of the Web.

In the recent past, video programming could easily be distinguished from advertising; now online video programming is becoming indistinguishable from advertising. Terms such as "click fraud" and "spyware" did not exist a few years ago, but they are now part of the lexicon of every online marketer.

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) is the principle government body responsible for the protection of US consumers against unfair, deceptive or fraudulent practices. In the most recent FTC report and testimony to Congress, the agency highlighted a number of topics within advertising and marketing that will come under the its microscope in the coming term:

  • Marketing to children (especially as it relates to entertainment, promotions that could influence gambling tendencies, alcohol/beer and food/beverage)
  • Advertising done in Spanish 
  • Advertising "blended" into games, entertainment and interactivity (so-called advergames) 
  • Spam and Internet marketing 
  • Online promotions
  • Privacy (personal and financial information)
Social networking sites and new payment systems are also touted as likely targets for increased examination from the FTC. The projections released in eMarketer’s recent report, Social Network Marketing: Ad Spending Update, put total US advertising spending on social networking sites at $865 million in 2007, with MySpace accounting for over 50% of the market. Given how quickly this new online advertising has grown, the law will have to evolve fast to keep up.

To assist online advertisers, the FTC has set out guidelines to ensure that disclosures or relevant information within an advertisement are not misleading or deceptive. Here are some of the key principles:

  • Be clear and conspicuous 
  • Display disclosures prior to purchase 
  • Have no distractions to disclosures 
  • Repeat the disclosures if necessary 
  • Any audio disclosures must have adequate volume 
  • Video disclosures must appear for a sufficient length of time 
  • The language used must be understandable to the audience
Good businesses do not just follow the legal rules, they anticipate potential new rules and they adjust their practices before their businesses are affected. Successful companies assess the mood of the community and the trends in their sector and they stay ahead of competitors by deploying legal and ethical leadership that is beyond reproach.

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